A crucial observation: some who claim to be serious practitioners of meditation have confused mere sitting with contemplation (dhyana). Whereas contemplation is always introspective, shikantaza (lit., “just sitting) is not. The latter is based upon Zen master Hung-chih’s school of Silent Illumination Zen which made it way to Japan through Dogen Zenji.
Hung-chih (1091–1157) believed that prolonged hours of seated silent meditation is sufficient to reveal our latent Buddha-nature; that it will eventually illuminate itself if we just sit in complete silence. He said: “Just being completely silent we are naturally illuminated” (Hongzhi lu p. 159b5; Hongzhi guanglu, p. 37a8).
Hung-chih’s method might be characterized as akin to merely waiting for fresh cream to turn into butter. This is reminiscent of a passage from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra which suggests, under Hung-chih’s banner, that cream naturally becomes butter if we let it. But this view is clearly not the Buddha’s teaching.
O good man! As an example: there is a man who has some cream. People ask: "Do you have any butter?" He answers: "I have". But, truth to tell, cream is not butter. Skilfully worked out [i.e. using skilful means], he is sure to gain it [i.e., butter].
Assurdely, such quietism is not the answer. Silent sitting, alone, cannot bring forth illumination. By analogy, cream cannot become butter on its own. A certain method is required to cause cream to become butter. On the same track, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha said:
O good man! An example: from cream, water, churning, a pot, and a person's hand holding it, we obtain butter. The cream does not think to itself: "I will call forth butter." Nor, even, does the person's hand think to itself: "I will call forth butter."
The method required for us to see Buddha-nature is much more complex than just sitting (shikantaza). Literally, lifetimes of ignorance have obfuscated our true nature. Accordingly, to seperate what is true from what is false is no easy task—often, in fact, the false is our criterion at first. Indeed, this was so in the Buddha’s own life when he was a Bodhisattva. He went through a number of teachers and their teachings only to reject them as being inadequate. He never once attributed his awakening to just sitting. Nor did he teach the many to just sit.
In the practice of seated meditation, posture, breath attending, and the control of mental modifications constitute its general technique whereas inward sustained silence is its goal. However, this ignores, altogether, the animative force that enlivens the biological body, itself, which is the real target of Zen. It also ignores the fact that this spiritual animative force can only be reached by introspective contemplation by which one has to penetrate through the illusory rind of mind generated phenomea; therein to discover the undying noumena, i.e., our Buddha-nature (lit., “the character of the Buddha”).